Friday, June 22, 2007

Liberal Group Calls For Free Market Solution

By now you have heard of the fake news story Drudge pushed this morning about the alleged conversation "the other day" between Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton about a legislative fix for talk radio.

Apparently Senator James Inhofe, R-Ok made a comment on a the Breithart Show which quickly spread all over the media. Finally, after Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton denied the truth of this claim, Inhofe told Neil Cavuto that the comment had been made about three years ago. The story is completely debunked by the videos posted at TPM Election Central.

At the height of this little "scandal" Jack Tapper over at ABC News Political Punch demonstrating that he has no business calling himself a professional journalist, made the following comment in an apparent effort to imply some sort of "liberal plot":

I'm still waiting for comment from Clinton's and Boxer's offices….but this comes on the heels of a new study by a liberal group that claims that in Spring 2007 "of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners, 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming was conservative."
I followed the link to a new joint study by the Center for American Progress and the Free Press entitled "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio." Sorry Jack, that is a joint study by two groups. Both claim to be non-partisan.

Here is what the study found.
Among radio formats, the combined news/talk format (which includes news/talk/information and talk/personality) leads all others in terms of the total number of stations per format and trails only country music in terms of national audience share. Through more than 1,700 stations across the nation, the combined news/talk format is estimated to reach more than 50 million listeners each week.

As this report will document in detail, conservative talk radio undeniably dominates the format:

Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive.

Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk—10 times as much conservative
talk as progressive talk.

A separate analysis of all of the news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets reveals that 76 percent of the programming in these markets is conservative and 24 percent is progressive, although programming is more balanced in markets such as New York and Chicago.

This dynamic is repeated over and over again no matter how the data is analyzed, whether one looks at the number of stations, number of hours, power of stations, or the number of programs. While progressive talk is making inroads on commercial stations, conservative talk continues to be pushed out over the airwaves in greater multiples of hours than progressive talk is broadcast.
The findings are not very surprising. Anybody living in a city other than New York, Chicago or LA will tell you that if you want progressive radio you have to pick up a web feed.

It looks like our intrepid reporter found what he wanted in the second sentence of the first page. If he had gone to the next page he would have found a discussion of why talk radio is dominated by conservatives. First, the study recognizes that
The two most frequently cited reasons are the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and simple consumer demand.
If you watch the Cavuto video you will encounter both. The authors conclude, however, that neither explains the dominance of right wing talk radio.

Instead they suggest the data reveals that "ownership diversity is perhaps the single most important variable contributing to the structural imbalance." Quantitative analysis of all 10,506 licensed commercial radio stations establishes that that stations owned by women, minorities, or most importantly, local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows. The study further found that:
In contrast, stations controlled by group owners—those with stations in multiple markets or more than three stations in a single market—were statistically more likely to air conservative talk. Furthermore, markets that aired both conservative and progressive programming were statistically less concentrated than the markets that aired only one type of programming and were more likely to be the markets that had female- and minority-owned stations.

The disparities between conservative and progressive programming reflect the absence of localism in American radio markets. This shortfall results from the consolidation of ownership in radio stations and the corresponding dominance of syndicated programming operating in economies of scale that do not match the local needs of all communities.
The study concludes that any effort to encourage more responsive and balanced radio programming will first require steps to increase localism and diversify radio station ownership to better meet local and community needs. The authors suggest three ways to accomplish this:

1. Restore local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations.

2. Ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing.

3. Require commercial owners who fail to abide by enforceable public interest
obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting.

In short, what the "liberal group" recommends is more competition, especially local competition. If the airwaves are dominated by five or six media giants all run by five or six very conservative white men everybody will listen to the same stuff those conservative white men want them to hear. More owners means more decision makers. More decision makers means more opportunity for progressive talk radio.

UPDATE: Ed Schultz agrees with me.